Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, March 29, 2014

RIP, Joe Frazier

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith from a Place of Winter for the Years of Winter… ©

            Joe Frazier died yesterday, March 28.

            Joe was the baritone in The Chad Mitchell Trio, and the vicar at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Big Bear, CA. We were working on a book together, although most of the work was me cracking the whip to try to get him to write, without much success.

            Helen and I were in Oakland City, Indiana, there for my 60 year high school class reunion. In the afternoon before the evening banquet, we turned down the narrow gravel road to go see the little hard-scrabble farm where I grew up. We had made the turn before we realized it wasn’t really narrow anymore, or even a road. There was just a hard scraped, totally barren, yellow wasteland where the farm fields of the Steeles and Heathmans and Wades had once been. We topped the little rise to our farm. It was gone. Just gone. The big maple trees, the orchard, the barn, the chicken house, the pond. Only the house remained, abandoned and neglected, holes in the roof, trees growing out of the windows. The entire neighborhood had been strip-mined.

            We managed to turn around and get back to the road that would take us to Forsythe Methodist Church. It was a hot day, especially in the open part of the Forsythe cemetery, where my parents are buried. Since we live 750 miles from Oakland City, their grave stone had been set in our absence. Backwards. Every other stone in the cemetery faced west. My parents faced east, looking across the field to our farm, except there was nothing there now. The strip mines had come right up behind the cemetery. Looking the wrong way, at nothing. I don’t think I had never felt so sad.

            We were driving out, past the church building, when my phone rang. Helen answered it, as she always does when I am driving. She listened for a moment and then said, urgently, “Pull over in the shade. It’s Joe Frazier, of The Chad Mitchell Trio. He wants to talk with you.”

            Joe had read my book of stories about my ministry, THE STRANGE CALLING. He wanted to write something similar about his own life and wondered if I would help him. I said I would, but how could we get together, since he lived in California? Well, the trio was going to perform in Wisconsin at Labor Day, not too far from the UP. We could get together then. But they wouldn’t be there long, had to leave right after to start a performance cruise from NYC up the Canadian coast. Helen could hear only my side of the conversation, but when she did, she said, “Hot damn, we’re going on a cruise.” It was the perfect call, the perfect invitation, at the perfect time.

            The CMT performed formally several times on the cruise, but I enjoyed most the personal conversations, and the informal times late in the evening, when we sat around, Paul Prestipino and Bob Hefferan and Ron Greenstein and anybody else with a guitar or banjo picking, Chad Mitchell and Mike Kobluk and Joe singing, the rest of us humming along. Joe and I led a Sunday morning worship service together, him doing the liturgy and me preaching, typical of an Episcopalian and a Methodist.

            We first saw The CMT when they came to Indiana State University in Terre Haute, when I was the Methodist campus minister there. Others will say that The Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul, and Mary were the best musical group of what Dave Van Ronk called “the great folk scare” of the 1960s, but for us, it was always The Chad Mitchell Trio, later just The Mitchell Trio, when Chad left to pursue a solo career and an unknown singer named John Denver replaced him.

            It was the 1960s, and Joe got into the drug scene, dropping out of the trio and of life in general. I think it was Tennessee Williams, in whose pool Joe used to go swimming, who recognized something in Joe that he had not quite realized himself and said to him, “Have you ever considered the priesthood?” He went to Yale Divinity School, was ordained an Episcopal priest, and practiced “the high calling” right up to the day of his death. I’m pretty sure he’s the only professional musician with whom I have discussed the theology of Karl Rahner. He was of the “radical priest” school, protesting every injustice, advocating for the poor and neglected and abandoned.

            We’ll never get that book written. I regret that. Joe had so many great stories to tell, of taking Pete Seeger’s daughter to her first arrest, of demonstrating for justice with Yip Harburg, who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” of being in Miriam Makeba’s dressing room when a couple of South African diplomats, in the apartheid days, said they hoped she would come home soon and she said, “Why? Do you need another maid?”

            Helen and I decided not to say anything to the gravestone people. Mother never saw things the way other people did. It’s okay for her to be eternally looking in the other direction. But I’m eternally grateful that Joe Frazier, another one who looked in a different direction, called that day.

            The CMT introduced almost all the songs of the great Tom Paxton. In his words, “Come along, won’t you come along home now, night is fallin’ and the path is steep. Come along, won’t you come along home now, water’s runnin’ and the river is deep.”

John Robert McFarland

The “place of winter” mentioned in the title line is Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where life is defined by winter even in the summer!

I am able to email CIW posts only occasionally now. I rely on my readers to check the website,  once in a while. You don’t have to bookmark or favorite the CIW URL to return here, though. Just Google Christ In Winter and it will show up at the top of the page.

I tweet, occasionally, as yooper1721.

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